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Rhiannon: An Improviser Resists The Urge To Reuse

"There was this sensation of going on a journey together, without seat belts," says Rhiannon of her band's first totally improvised performance. Her newest album is called Spontaneous. (Courtesy of the artist)

If you ever listened to jazz vocalists and wondered if you could ever in your life scat like them, there's someone who's willing to teach you. The vocalist Rhiannon has long held the importance of improvisation as a personal credo, and in her career has blended that art form with jazz, world music and storytelling.

After leaving her farming family in South Dakota, Rhiannon studied acting in New York and Chicago, then landed in San Francisco, where she co-founded Alive! — an all-female jazz quintet. Since then, she has worked collaboratively with Bobby McFerrin, various a capella ensembles and other musicians, all while fine-tuning her voice and teaching others to do the same.

Improvisation wasn't always Rhiannon's bread and butter. She and her current band performed repertoire for years before deciding one night, at a gig in Los Angeles, to go off-script.

"It was beyond words," Rhiannon says. "We just decided it was the night to try it, because we all had this love of improvisation. We didn't use any charts that night, and it was so successful. Something happened in the room that was, not only for us, magic, but I think for the whole audience. There was this sensation of going on a journey together, without seat belts."

Rhiannon's latest release, Spontaneous, is an album-length experiment in capturing her off-the-cuff vision on tape. The band rented a studio in Los Angeles and gathered for several improvisational sessions, two of which had a live audience in the room. Rhiannon says that while such exercises sometimes spawn great ideas, reusing them after the fact is off-limits.

"I might use a thread of something from an improvisation — in fact, a lot of my [older] compositions came that way," she says. "But once it's down, I don't want to mess with it, because you know what? It's never going to be that fresh, it's never going to have quite that rhythmic context, it's never going to be quite as strong."

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